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A Mid-Winter's Dream

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Summer along the Big Wood River explodes with life—riotous tangles of leaves, bird song, and groups of mule deer fording the stream—but this winter day whispers of survival. White aspens and black cottonwoods stand in skeletal relief against the gray ceiling of a building storm. Except for a lone ouzel dipping in open riffles or a single mallard whistling overhead, the river seems devoid of life.

To understand why any sane man or woman would willingly spend hours in the freezing, waist-deep water of an ice-choked river, you must realize that fly fishermen are an obsessive breed. Consider the equipment they need to catch a six-inch trout: rods, reels, waders, nets, vests, float tubes, books on streamside entomology, hundreds of floats, sinkers, tippits, clippers, hemostats, repellents, and a new SUV to haul it all to streams near and far. And that doesn’t include flies—thousands, even ten thousands of flies. A fly fisherman’s array of fur, feather, and floss imitations is large and diverse, often impulsively acquired, and invariably expensive.

 . . . as if the fly is a talisman blessed by the forces that control fishing luck . . .

I cannot claim that I am the one to divine the truth about fishing Chamois Nymphs in winter-bound rivers. It is Scott Morrison who, one Sunday afternoon in early February, whip-finishes the creamy-beige fly in his tying vice and drops it into my hand. Studying the nymph’s symmetry, he notes, “It’s the right size, shape, and texture.” Then, as if the fly is a talisman blessed by the forces that control fishing luck, he adds, “Huge trout won’t be able to resist it."

When I find a fly that works—whether it’s as pedestrian as a Royal Wulff or as exotic as a Moonlight Bivisible or a Bead-Eyed Deep Diver—it eventually claims a place of honor in the upper left-hand corner of my fly box. But for now (although Morrison’s faith carried some weight), I store the unproved Chamois Nymph among the rank and file—untried flies, and those that have been tested, found wanting, and returned to the box without honor.

On the day that Scott and I break trail through two feet of snow to the Wood River’s icy bank, I would bet five hundred dollars that within an hour we will have ascertained that fly fishing is strictly a summer sport, best practiced when caddis are clouding the Wood River or brown drakes are tacking across Silver Creek’s mirrored surface. It is simply not a day to be afield. The cold is pushing its way through layers of Gore-Tex, pile, and neoprene as we stumble through dormant thickets of wild roses to the river’s bank.

Aside from the cold, there is another reason why the Wood is deserted on that February afternoon. In a process repeated throughout the winter, the water has frozen and thawed and then frozen again, stacking blue cards of pressure ice against the river’s steep banks.

Not surprisingly, with the water temperature hanging a few degrees above freezing, the entry into the knee-deep current is at least as dicey as the hike in. I place my feet like chess pieces, testing the slick river rocks before committing weight to my wading shoes.

“Cast that nymph to the head of the pool," Morrison suggests. The white line and hair-fine tippit float the pale imitation into an upstream riffle, where the current tumbles it back down into the pool.

The fly settles into the deep water where trout could be hanging on the drop-off into the pool. The nymph should drift, not drag, so I mend the line by rolling the rod tip upstream. It is an unthinking process, this mending, and I study the drift for any hesitation until the line sweeps out the bottom of the pool.

The clouds that have been threatening slowly lower, and snow starts to fall. The flakes collide weightlessly with my rod before spinning into the dark current. I am surprised by how quickly the water freezes to the ferrules. Continuing to cast, I ignore the ice until it locks the floating line in place. Then, one by one, I free the ferrules and take a step closer to the head of the pool.

… as we stumble through dormant thickets of wild roses to the river’s bank

As the storm intensifies, I search for midges among the spinning flakes and watch the calm water for rises. Less weather- and season-dependent than most outdoor sports, fishing is based more on timing and focus. Fish respond to the mating rituals of mayflies, the mechanics of Gulf of Alaska low-pressure systems, the moon’s gravitational pull, the ebb and flow of deep-strata springs, and a dozen other factors—some knowable, most mysteries.

Wading upstream, it occurs to me there is one pleasant difference between summer and winter: the lack of people. Except for the trophy houses that litter the Wood’s banks, the river is empty… and pristine. I have seen otters and beavers riding the current in summer, but most animals that don’t hibernate or live beneath the snow have migrated out, and if I do cut across a set of fox prints, they are days old. >>>

 

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